Sérgio Serapião was in his thirties when he began inviting Brazilian seniors out for a cup of coffee. A decade later, Brazilians over 60 still convene the Café com Vida, or “coffee with life” in cities throughout the country. These gatherings offer seniors a public forum to re-engage in community life, while guarding against isolation by building new social networks. In getting to know his nation’s elders, Sérgio became convinced of their immense talent and readiness to contribute, despite the structural barriers. What if, he asked, we could redefine employment to open society to its senior talent? What if we could end both the sting of isolation and pinch of retirement? He founded Labora Tech to work with both employers and employees to create new models of employment. Sérgio explained his vision for a redefined longevity to Chris Cusano of Ashoka.
Chris Cusano: What surprised you most when you started working with seniors?
Sérgio Serapião: The first thing was that we did not know each other. There were people in government, in civil society, in the private sector, all thinking about the issue of seniors in society, but we weren’t connected to each other. The themes of work were much less consistent than you might find in areas like education or environment. You could say we didn’t really have a field. There was a big opportunity to create something.
I also came to understand how much of a youth-centered culture we have, and I think most places still have. We idolize youth to the point that we forget about other kinds of strengths and qualities. The ideal is the Olympic athlete—young, strong, and at peak performance, competing to dominate. And that leaves out most of us. But I believe that diversity is a source of strength and creativity in society, including age diversity.
Cusano: What was the original idea of Lab60+ and Café com Vida?
Serapião: We wanted to welcome everyone—not just seniors, but anyone with an interest. In each Café session, there are six ideas or initiatives presented by members. It could be something small and new, or something big and established, but all are relevant to the lives of senior Brazilians. It’s not about pitching or selling ideas, but sharing, asking questions, giving people a chance to voice their opinions, and connecting the diversity. This is how collaboration begins among people who previously did not even know each other. We have done more than 200 of these meetings all over the country, and in a few other countries, too.
As we age, society pushes us out of public view. Aside from the positive lifelong recognition retirement brings to people, I came to see ‘retirement status’ as an arrangement that harms many seniors. There is a transaction: We won’t expect you to work anymore, and you should stay home and decline in private. We associate aging primarily with illness, loneliness, and poverty. Aging becomes a very negative thing, associated only with loss and decline. The mistake is to think that this is an issue only for old people, but this is everyone’s issue because we are all aging every day. So we needed to create a movement to include every age to debate. Lab60+ is a network-based effort, run on zero budget. All the Cafes held locally were put on by people in that city, who emerge and take the lead. I just support them by sharing the method and together, we form a social-impact network.
Cusano: What does “longevity” mean to you?
Serapião: By longevity, I don’t mean extending the years of life, but getting the maximum value out of every stage of life, and successfully managing and planning the transitions between them.
The old, three-stage definition of life—youth is the time to learn, adulthood the time to produce, old age the time to rest—made sense when human lives were only 50 years long and society ran on manual labor. But today, people are living longer, well into their 80s and 90s. Someone who retires at 65, what are they supposed to do for the next 25 years? We haven’t expanded the stages of life, we just let the last one go on longer and longer.
Longevity is a framework that makes no one irrelevant because of age. Your unique skill and strength as an older person create value for you and for others.
Cusano: How does this perspective influence your ideas for 60+ employment?
Serapião: Work is important for many reasons, beyond the financial. Adults socialize through work, we chat, make friends, engage others face-to-face, fulfil a role. Retirement can cancel all that overnight, and for many it marks the beginning of decline, not caused by age but isolation. It’s no wonder that at Labora, we use social connection and well-being as indicators of success in senior employment, right along with earned income. In our youth-centered culture, jobs are designed for people not older than 40. So, we need not just more jobs, but new jobs, professions of the future, where seniors’ own strengths and competencies serve real needs. This means working with all the actors, not just seniors, but employers, and specific industries that already see strategic advantage to expanding service to senior customers.
Cusano: What’s an example of a job that makes use of seniors’ strengths?
Serapião: In 2019, Labora partnered with the largest bank in Brazil with branches everywhere, to make good use of seniors’ empathy and patience. As we know, banks are integrating digital services at the branches, but the seniors—and many seniors rely on in-person banking—are not used to the new gadgets and procedures and need a lot of support. Senior customers were being seen as a problem, but for us they were the solution. We piloted a project with the bank to include a group of seniors at a new position at specific branches. They would take care of enhancing customer experience, guiding senior customers through the bank’s digital app. Within 3 months, these branches had increased customers’ digital engagement by more than 80%, compared to other branches that did not have seniors helping customers. There was an advantage to having a peer-to-peer customer support strategy, using the patience and empathy of senior employees.
Experiences such as this have shown me that including seniors presents a lot of value to companies and society, but then we need to customize these new roles, understand their specific moment of life. They usually prefer a flexible routine in order to accommodate multiple responsibilities. So, we developed a technology to enable them to choose to work as much or as little as they want, each week. They can have multiple jobs for multiple employers. We can think of it as a gig economy for seniors, tailored for improving their well-being and solving employers’ challenges. If we want to include age diversity, we need to partner with employers to design specific working opportunities for seniors.
Cusano: How do you prepare seniors for these new kinds of roles?
Serapião: The first step is to understand that our lifespan is longer, so when we reach 50, we need to think about starting the second half of our life. How will you build it? Look ahead another 20 or 30 years. It’s not about clinging onto or throwing away your past, but discovering how your competencies and experiences might answer the new challenges of today.
The next step is to engage real life experiences to test yourself in new roles, new industries. We have created a “learning at the job” lab, where we introduce around twenty or thirty seniors into organizations, to advise on real challenges. Of course, these are not specific technical challenges, like designing a new database, bur more about management, teams, communication, culture, creativity. The seniors aren’t necessarily even business people, they might be retired as doctors or homemakers. They have lifetimes’ worth of experience understanding others.
The results were excellent, and there are many companies that would like to try something like this. We created Labora to use technology to open up opportunities for thousands of seniors. In 2020, Labora launched a partnership with Oracle to build new professions around technology for seniors. We invited large tech employers to ask, what do we miss if everyone on a team is under 30? How could an intergenerational tech team make better digital products? After a few months of experiments, we have trained the first 500 seniors to integrate into large employers’ tech teams. And we start to hear from some of them, “How come we haven’t hired anyone over 50 on our team before?”
Sérgio Serapião is founder of LAB60+ and Labora Tech, and he is an Ashoka Fellow.